STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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Teaching students how to switch between Black English and Standard English can help them get ahead

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Last week we did a story about whether people judge others based on how they speak. (Spoiler alert: Yep, they do.) One African-American high school student we spoke to said he hated how often teachers corrected him when he spoke. "Every time you try to say something they gotta correct every line you say. It's like ... I don't want to talk to you now."

University of Michigan education professor Holly Craigsays that type of "correctional" teaching style is a sure-fire way to turn African American students off from education, and the results play out time and again in standardized test scores for African-American students. 

Across the country, black students consistently lag behind their white peers on standardized tests. Experts have been trying to come up with ways to shrink the achievement gapfor decades, but it’s still there. Craig and a team of researchers thinks teaching kids how to code switch at an early age can go a long way reducing the gap. 

"We speak street vernacular and we speak job interview"

The black comedian Dave Chappelle was on Inside the Actor's Studio a couple of years ago, and at one point in the interview the topic of code switching came up. I can't post the video because of copyright issues, so I'll transcribe the exchange between the host, James Lipton, and Chappelle. 

LIPTON: When you play white dudes, your speech is pitch perfect. Which led me to realize that either one of you [Chappelle and fellow comedian Martin Lawrence] could, if you wished, speak that way all the time. In other words, is it a matter of choice?

CHAPPELLE: Every black American is bilingual. [Applause] We speak street vernacular and we speak job interview. There's a certain way I gotta speak to have access...

To be able to effectively move between “street vernacular” and “job interview” speech, or what linguists call African-American English and Standard American English, is to be able to code switch. 

Formal versus Informal

University of Michigan education professor Holly Craig wants to take the idea of code switching and formalize it for the classroom. She calls it Toggle Talk, and it's a new curriculum for kindergartners and first-grade students. It comes with its own set of picture books and lesson plans, and it treats Black English as a legitimate dialect with its own set of grammar rules. The idea is to help kids understand how code switching works on a grammatical level, which will then allow students to compare and contrast Black English grammar with Standard English. Studies show students who can master that do much better academically and beyond.

Craig says up until now teachers – the vast majority of whom are white – haven’t been given the tools to help kids successfully code switch. 

"What we’ve done as teachers is to either hope that students would learn on their own and pick up the language of the classroom," explains Craig, "or we’ve adopted methods that have not been positive and constructive; they’ve instead been very correctional in nature." 

Instead of using "right" and "wrong" to describe Standard American English versus African-American English, Craig’s model uses "formal" and "informal" designations, so there’s no judgment attached to either language. One isn't "better" than the other per se, it's all about when it's appropriate to use one form or the other. It’s “this is how you talk in school,” rather than “don’t talk like that.” Craig calls it "a slight change" that makes a big difference in kids' attitudes about their own language.

I'm OK, you're OK

Andre Robert Lee is a filmmaker and director and he's currently at work on amultimedia series for Colorlines about the lives of black men. The subject of code switching came up a lot in his recent documentary, Prep School Negro. Lee himself is a pro at code switching. He grew up in the ghettos of Philadelphia but received a full-ride scholarship to attend a predominately white prep school when he was 14 years old. So he was constantly having to negotiate two vastly different linguistic worlds. He says he experienced a lot of shame around the way he spoke, and it wasn’t until high school that a teacher told him how he spoke at home was OK – that it wasn’t wrong or bad. He wishes that conversation would’ve happened a lot earlier.

That said, he thinks Craig's framework – using formal and informal instead of right and wrong – to explore language diversity in the classroom, is a good one.

"When you tell a person that who they are and the way they exist is a problem, that puts them in a difficult situation," says Lee. "So I like the idea of saying you can learn to code switch ... because that's how our world works. But here's the first message: You're OK."

The new Toggle Talk curriculum will be used in select classrooms across the country this fall. Early test results and research, funded by a $1.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education, show that the African-American students who piloted the program improved their reading scores and ability to code switch. Which suggests that it might help kids to know it’s ok to speak street vernacular, as long as they can nail the job interview speak, too.

Jennifer is a reporter with Michigan Radio's State of Opportunity project. She previously covered arts and culture for the station, and worked as a producer for WFUV in the Bronx.
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